The State of Air Show Awareness: Taking the Public’s Pulse

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The North American air show industry hosts nearly 300 events each year gathering millions of people to experience the thrill of aerobatics, the nostalgia of old warbirds, and wonderment of how those planes and pilots do the things they do. In one weekend alone this spring, up to 62 million people were within a 60-mile drive of an air show. On a single weekend in June, nearly one million people attended shows in ten different locations in the U.S. and Canada. The highly publicized Arsenal of Democracy World War II Victory Capitol Flyover in May trended worldwide on Twitter for over two hours and brought Washington, D.C., to a standstill with ICAS members front and center in the air and on the ground. And, there were 42 U.S. and Canadian air shows in July alone! It stands to reason that everyone has heard of air shows, right?

Earlier this year, ICAS set out to discover if it was that simple. As part of the organization’s five-year strategic plan introduced in the late summer of 2014, the Board of Directors asked headquarters staff to benchmark the general public’s awareness of air shows as an entertainment option.

To accomplish this, ICAS commissioned a survey through Ipsos, a Chicago-based market research firm that specializes in advertising, loyalty, marketing, media and public affairs research. The study was conducted online February 24-27, 2015, using the Ipsos eNation tool, with a sample of 1,005 American adults weighted to the U.S. Census. ICAS asked eight questions — six multiple response and two open-ended — designed specifically to measure the public’s unaided – and aided – awareness, as well as their overall attitude toward air shows.

The survey yielded some very interesting results. For example, not one respondent when asked, “When you think of live entertainment options, what comes to mind?” indicated air show(s) by name as a live entertainment option in their area unaided, nor did anything airplane or aviation-related appear in their open-ended responses. However, after being prompted, 32 percent of respondents recognized air shows as an entertainment option in their locality with men and women evenly split. Just eight percent said they are likely to attend an air show in 2015, again with men and women even.

If 32 percent of the general population is familiar with air shows, who are they?  We see stronger recognition among married white women, aged 55 or older with higher household incomes, in the southern U.S.

Figure 1 illustrates that air show recognition lags with the 18-to-34-year-old crowd with only 23 percent of that age group having heard of air shows as an entertainment option. So, is it surprising that both men and women, aged 18-to-34 in upper income households without kids are the most likely to attend an air show? It seems that age group may be willing to give air shows a shot once they hear about them.

Now that you’ve been bombarded with numbers, what do they mean for your air show business?

On a macro level, in the U.S. alone, with a population around 320 million people, if eight percent are likely to attend an air show, that equals 25.6 million potential spectators. But, because no one named air shows unaided, they might attend only after they are prompted to do so. There’s where we have our work cut out for us. There is hope. Read on and let’s talk through it.

Survey responses indicate that 37 percent of the American public has attended an air show at some point and another 17 percent believe that they would enjoy air shows. Only 16 percent of Americans either didn’t enjoy their air show experience or have never attended and don’t want to find out.

That leaves most of the country as potential prospects…individuals who have not yet made up their mind and might be encouraged to attend your event.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans have either enjoyed an air show and have not come back, are on the fence and don’t know if they would enjoy them, or think they would enjoy an air show if they went. And more than three quarters of those prospective new spectators are in the upper half of household incomes and have children they could bring with them.

Locally, with what other entertainment options are we competing for recognition? Where do air shows stand on the depth chart of local activities people are aware of? Air shows finished just ahead of auto racing as a local, live entertainment option people have heard of and are most likely to attend this year. Concerts, live theater, and amusement parks led the way in both recognition and likelihood of attending. Both major and minor league sports events finished just ahead of air shows in recognition and as events people are likely to attend.

Concerts, depending on the artist and your taste, are usually a big deal when they come to town. Perhaps in your neck of the woods two, maybe three, big concerts take place over the summer. Theater productions are ongoing and typically take place indoors. Going to an amusement park is an outdoor summertime thing to do much like air shows. Less than half of U.S. adults say they have amusement parks nearby and only 21 percent say they’re likely to go to one this year. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions there are approximately 400 amusement parks and attractions in the U.S. That’s not so far off from the number of air shows held in North America each year. Given the similarities and widespread availability of the two options, what are amusement parks doing differently to garner 13 percent more recognition as an entertainment option and a 13 percent higher probability of attendance?

We wanted to discover the general public’s attitude toward air shows by asking them about real or perceived positive and negative aspects of air shows. Overwhelmingly, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said that they enjoy seeing aircraft perform. And, women between the ages of 35 and 54 with household income higher than $50,000 were the most enthusiastic. Why go to an air show if not to see the planes and pilots perform? It seems obvious, but it’s somewhat contradictory to the 2014 Spectator Survey where only 37.6 percent of people already at an air show cited civilian aerobatics as a main attraction. Forty-four percent of people simply like attending an outdoor event with friends and family. About a third think learning about aviation and airplanes is a positive part of air shows. Fourteen percent of respondents believe air shows provide a great value for the price and one quarter view the expense of air shows negatively. With an average ticket price of $18.32 across the industry, and only 15 percent of actual air show spectators describing the cost of admission as expensive according to our 2014 Spectator Survey, is the industry dealing with a perception problem or an on-the-field product problem?

So what keeps people away? If 32 percent of U.S. adults are familiar with air shows, why will only a fraction of them go to an air show this year? Why the drop off? People are, in fact, willing to spend time at an air show – only 10 percent say it’s too much of a time commitment. Almost half view crowds as the number one negatively perceived aspect, followed closely by ‘too hot/lack of shade,’ ‘safety,’ and ‘traffic.’ With the exception of ‘too hot/lack of shade,’ these are all solvable problems.

By working together with municipalities, vendors, and consultants, and, through practical experience, air show organizers know that having traffic and parking plans in place ahead of time makes coming to the event a much more pleasurable experience right from the start. If spectators are able to arrive at the venue and park with minimal hassle, then you already have a happy customer – the crowd issue seems to diminish. Add to that a variety of food and beverage vendors spread out on the ramp to mitigate any bottlenecks or excessive lines. Then, you have moms and dads ages 18-to-34 making over $50,000 a year, possibly with children, who are happy, comfortable, and well-fed who have just spent $20 per ticket and bought $30 worth of food and maybe some souvenirs who will tell their friends who didn’t come what a great experience they had. At least that’s what the numbers tell us.

One of the great things about our industry is that there really is something for everyone – jets, warbirds, aerobatics, fast cars, jet trucks, STEM workshops, Kiddie Korners, static displays and more. We host small, hometown shows that attract 2,500 people and large metropolitan-area shows that bring over 500,000 people out for a weekend. With millions of people in the U.S. and Canada within driving distance of an air show, we want to know why most won’t attend an event. So we asked, quite simply, “If you have never attended an air show, please indicate why.” Nearly eight percent of respondents used the words “never,” as in “never thought about them” or “never hear about them” and another four percent used the words “don’t know” or “don’t like _______.” That’s 12 percent of the U.S. population who, really, just needs to hear something positive about our product and be given a reason to go.

This year we have seen dozens of headlines from local newspapers and television stations about record attendance and the significant economic impact air shows have on the economy. If we are attracting the large crowds that we have now with such a low level of awareness, imagine what we can do when we begin to have a positive impact on familiarity and recognition.

We are a community of different shows, different performers, different localities and different goals. Maybe you are an event organizer who makes a living on the profitability of your shows. You could be part of a municipal entity that hosts a show for your community. Or you’re a performer hoping to attract new fans or sponsors or a vendor with a new product. The simple fact is you are in the business to make money – even if you’re a nonprofit providing charitable contributions or a local government delivering taxpayer value. Where can you find those precious dollars?

There is a vast amount of information contained within the survey’s responses. You are invited and encouraged to use the raw survey data to help you refine your marketing and public relations outreach efforts and raise awareness in your local area. The document can be downloaded from the ICAS website at www.airshows.aero/GetDoc/3440 or by going to www.airshows.aero/Page/Publications and scrolling down to the ICAS section, Survey Results.

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Matt Warnock is the former Director of Marketing, Communications and Digital Media for the International Council of Air Shows.